Fidel Castro: A First-Person Account of the Day the Music Stopped in Cuba

Sven Creutzmann/Mambo Photography/Getty Images
Fidel Castro photographed on Sept. 9, 2002 in Havana, Cuba. 

Musician, Billboard contributor and acclaimed author Ned Sublette (Cuba and Its Music: From the First Drums to the Mambo) has been in Cuba this past historic week and was at a concert the night of Nov. 25, when the country learned of Fidel Castro’s death. As the former leader's ashes travel from Havana to his home province of Oriente, Ned -- in this exclusive piece for Billboard -- shares what it’s like to be in Cuba with all music suspended for nine days until Castro's funeral on the Dec. 4, what Castro’s passing means for the country’s artists, and what comes next with President-elect Donald Trump possibly undoing two years of progress between the United States and the once-prohibited island. 

At Havana's La Tropical, the historic, famously funky outdoor beer garden that is the high temple of dance music in Havana, several thousand Cubans and foreigners were dancing away to Revé y Su Charangón, the headline attraction of the final night of the 2016 Baile en Cuba festival.

With its distinctive nasal vocal style and its own particular rhythm, every Cuban knows the sound of La Revé. Led by Elito Revé, son of the group’s deceased founder, this perpetually popular dance-music institution celebrated its 60th anniversary this year with a string of high-profile concerts in the island. 

They started out strong, and after an extended version of their 1991 hit “Mi Salsa Tiene Sandunga,” which they re-recorded in 2014, they were into their fourth, or maybe fifth, number, when, suddenly, they stopped playing.

Had the power gone out? That sometimes happens in Cuba. But no, the P.A. was working and the lights were on. The master of ceremonies came out and spoke only a few words: “fuerza mayor ... we have to suspend the activity ... Fidel Castro died.”

There was stunned silence. Not even a gasp. Jaws dropped. Silently, people began filing out of the dancehall. I got into an old-car taxi and found myself in the position of informing the driver what had happened. He didn’t want to believe me. Que no me digas eso, he said, que no me digas eso. “Don’t tell me that. Don’t tell me that.” Yo soy fidelista. “I am a Fidelista.”

No one in Cuba will forget where they were when they received the news.

Fidel Castro Ruz died in bed at the age of 90, at 10:29 on the night of Friday, Nov. 25. His death was announced on state media precisely at midnight, and within minutes, all across the island nation, which declared its independence from the United States in 1959, all musical activities stopped cold. 

The scenario was repeated all over Havana and the rest of the island. Since then, there has not been music in Havana, except for a few politically charged songs on TV. An official period of nine days’ mourning -- the length of a Catholic novena, the length of time santeros believe it takes for the soul to leave the body -- was immediately declared. During this time, all public activities and espectáculos (shows) are suspended (the word “prohibited” is not used). 

These are sober days. In a country known for its drinking, Cubans were surprised by the suspension of alcohol sales that accompanied the mourning period, though consumption continues in the tourist enclaves and, with discretion, along with meals in some, though not all, private restaurants. 

Imagine Cuba without music. You can’t. On an ordinary night, Latin-music lovers in Havana have more choices than in any other city in the hemisphere. Though there is no central listing that tells you where the music is -- you find out by word of mouth, text messages and a few non-comprehensive websites -- there is more music in Cuba than anyone can deal with, all the time, at every level from amateur to world-famous.

The day after Fidel’s death (I follow the Cuban custom of referring to him by his first name), Plácido Domingo was scheduled to give a concert in the Gran Teatro Alicia Alonso with the Orquesta Sinfónica Nacional de Cuba under the direction of his longtime collaborator, U.S. conductor Eugene Kohn, and featuring Puerto Rican soprano Ana María Martínez. Hundreds of fans had flown in to see it. Canceled. According to a report in the Cuban Juventud Rebelde, Domingo hopes to reschedule it for next year. 

Instead, visitors experienced a moment in history. And while in Miami, there were celebrations in the streets, in Cuba, grief is everywhere.

“I think [Fidel’s death] affected many people more than they thought it would,” a 77-year-old Cuban told me in conversation. In the Hotel Meliá Havana, where Haila Mompié’s cabaret appearance stopped when the news arrived, a woman at the desk choked back tears as she checked in tourists.  The next day, a friend’s phone conversation with one of her work colleagues terminated because the man she was talking to was crying too hard.

Ironically, the first regularly scheduled commercial flights since 1961 from the U.S. to Havana began Nov. 28, putting the high-priced charter flights out of business and disgorging visitors who arrived to do -- what? Tour guides scrambled to find activities for their charges, billeted in hotels that are charging prices higher than those in Europe.

Not only music has stopped. The Rice University baseball team was in Havana and had won their first game, 4-0, when the rest of their five-game tour was suspended.

Religious activities were not suspended, per se; I heard ceremonial singing in the course of a santería initiation, and I heard Gregorian chant in the Church of the Vírgen de las Mercedes in La Habana Vieja area of the city. But in the old sugar town of Güines, about 30 miles south of Havana, where the chapel of Santa Bárbara is the base for a large annual religious procession on the night of Dec. 3, the víspera de Changó [the eve of Changó] has been suspended until next year, because that’s a public activity.

“Today my project Juan Perro was going to be presented in Havana for the first time since we recorded it 21 years ago,” said Spanish songwriter Santiago Auserón, sitting on the terrace of the Hotel Presidente with his collaborator and famed Cuban musician Francisco “Pancho” Amat. Auserón had come to Havana to perform a gala concert at the Teatro Bellas Artes celebrating the 21st anniversary of his landmark BMG-Ariola ”rock-montuno” album Raíces al Viento, recorded under his nom de disque Juan Perro in 1995 at Havana’s Areíto studios in collaboration with Cuban musicians.

Over the intervening years, Auserón and Amat have become close friends and musical companions. Though clearly happy to be seeing each other again, the two men were visibly disappointed to be having a long lunch instead of a sound check, and they grew pensive when I asked about the concert that would either not happen or have to be rescheduled. “The concert has been canceled,” Auserón explained, “for a very serious reason. It’s making us reflect.”

The state, meanwhile, is not improvising. Everything that is happening has been long planned. The “physical disappearance” (as Cuban television refers to it) of Fidel Castro is perhaps the least surprising news event ever.

The Cuban television channels are all running the same program, a mix of archival footage (of which there is an inexhaustible supply), live coverage and tributes by foreign dignitaries and Cubans, including some very moving and articulate ones by musicians who are household names across this large island. 

Cuba is not only Havana, and support for the comandante is particularly strong in the countryside and, of course, in his home province of Oriente in the far east. As I write this, the cortége carrying his ashes is crossing the country, in a symbolic retrograde of the triumphal march from Santiago de Cuba during the first week of 1959. Everywhere you look, TV screens are showing the road lined with people as the cars pass along a route lined in red on a videographic map, through Ciego de Ávila, Camagüey, Las Tunas, Holguín and on to Santiago.

Behind the mourning -- even by people who openly criticize the government -- is the apprehension: Now that President Obama’s respectful tone toward Cuba has been eclipsed by the loose-cannon belligerence of the incoming administration, will the two nations return once again to a warlike footing? 

“We’re all asking the same question,” said Santiago Auserón. “What’s going to happen? What’s going to happen in the United States with Donald Trump? What’s going to happen in Spain now that the right is once again in power?” Then he said something that this reporter heard repeated in one form or another from many of the foreigners presently in Cuba: “It’s a privilege to be here in Havana during these days of homage to Fidel.”

For Cuban musicians, the almost two years since the unexpected Obama opening was announced on Dec. 17, 2014, have in many ways been the best in living memory. It has become common to see them playing in New York and around the country, even as U.S. orchestras, jazz bands and choirs have been paying their own way in for the honor of playing in this world capital of music. Universities and conservatories have established study programs in Cuba. Some people are traveling back and forth so frequently that it’s hard to know whether they live in Cuba or the U.S. The blacklisting of Cuban music in the U.S. Latin music industry has largely stopped; there is even a radio station in Miami playing cubatón, something unthinkable a few years ago. [Editor's note: Ritmo 95.7 FM is owned by SBS, a network founded by Raúl Alarcón, a Cuban exile who was outspoken against Castro until his death in 2008.]

Cubans have seen this movie before: President Carter scrapped the travel ban, but it was reinstated by President Reagan. Will the new opening likewise be shut down? The responses of the incoming U.S. president and vice president, and the naming of the extremist pro-embargo Floridian Mauricio Claver-Carone to the transition team, are not promising signs for those who want U.S.-Cuba collaboration to continue. This apprehension mixes with the for-real mourning that is going on in Cuba for the man who, for better or worse, many Cubans saw as a guarantor of their national security.

Fidel’s funeral will be on Dec. 4, which Cubans know as the day of Changó, the warrior orisha of the Yoruba religion. He will be interred in the cemetery of Santa Ifigenia in Santiago, enlarged in anticipation of this long-expected event, where José Martí, founder of the Cuban nation, is buried, as is Carlos Manuel de Céspedes, the father of Cuban independence. It also holds the tombs of grand musical figures, including Francisco “Compay Segundo” Repilado, Ñico Saquito and Pepe Sánchez, creator of the bolero. 

Then, with the end of the mourning period, nightclubs will reopen, music will start up again, dancers will whirl, rum will flow, restaurants will turn the sound up on the music videos that have been flickering silently on the overhead screens, children will once again see cartoons on TV, and, as Pancho Amat told me, “Cuba will quickly return to normal.”

With or without visitors from the United States. 


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